Finally fall! Crisp temperatures, brisk winds, even a hint of frost last Tuesday night. And rain—over an inch of rain yesterday and last night! This is horticulture in heaven.
Fall is late, or maybe it’s just a new normal. My large white ash tree just lost its leave this week; reference books say that this species drops its leaves in late September. Many people were still harvesting tomatoes until this week. Sugar maples are only showing peak color now, and asters are still blooming. Holly berries are finally turning red.
I hope you enjoy the autumn as much as I do, and while you’re outside taking it all in, here are some garden chores you could be doing:
— Leave the Leaves this year: Don’t blow your leaves out to the curb; recycle them on your property. Fallen leaves and grass clippings represent the fertility of your soil, so why give them away? Use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.
— water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or fall. Perennials planted last season should be well-established, but those planted this year need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings this week.
— clean up the garden carefully now that warm-season crops are finally winding down: Remove the spent plants and compost healthy ones. Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).
— fall is the best time to extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): spread a 3-4” layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds in the mulch as you collect them.
— collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. I collected the first aster seeds this week. Rudbeckia seeds are ripe: you can tell when the birds start to eat them. Right now it’s hard to keep up with the seed collecting. And plenty of seed will remain for the birds to eat this winter.
— don’t clean up the perennial garden: leave the plants until spring. The birds will enjoy the seeds all winter, and the dead stalks will be easy to remove in spring.
— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: it’s too late to fertilize or reseed. If you did reseed this year, keep the seeded area moist until the grass is germinated. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. As the leaves fall, mow them, don’t rake or blow them. Your mower will chop them into small pieces that will quickly disintegrate, returning valuable nutrients to the lawn. Established lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day. But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!
— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.
Enjoy the garden this week!